HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Roof of Indochina Part 1 - Ascent

Before I begin, I just want to give a shout-out to Portland, Oregon. My tracking software says I'm getting a ton of pageviews from there. Not sure why, but cheers you crazy Pacific Northwesterners!
Our assault on Mt. Fansipan, which would take three days and two nights round trip, began early in the morning of the 10th. Overall the trek ended up being about 35 km (22 miles) long, which isn't all that far, especially over three days, but the terrain was very rough.

At dawn, the skies were clear, but by the time our van was ready to take us to the starting point it had clouded over. Before hopping into the van, we were introduced to Bao and Su, our indefatigable H'mong porters, whose severe facial features and reddish skin belied the hard lifestyle they led through the harsh winters of the mountains.

After a twenty minute drive through the descending mist, we arrived at our jumping off point. After the porters loaded up on food for the trek, we headed off into the gray morning at 9am.

It became immediately apparent that this was going to be a muddy, messy journey. It had rained heavily the day before, and we later found out that there had been severe weather just a few days before our arrival. This rain, combined with the moist atmosphere of the area around Sa Pa, meant that everything was soaked. The trail was nothing but mud with the occasional slick rock thrown in, and every tree trunk or branch we grabbed for extra stability was covered in dew.

About 20 minutes in, the skies suddenly cleared, and the morning sun began to bear down. We could now catch glimpses of looming mountains through the dense foliage, but we were also getting quite hot. We were all wearing sweatshirts and long-sleeve shirts, and as soon as we reached the first dry clearing we stripped down to t-shirts and athletic pants.

a bit overdressed

Upon noticing our slow pace, Bao and Su crafted walking sticks out of bamboo trees for each of us. These would become indispensable; acting as third legs on the incredibly slick trail. The surrounding scenery was amazing: lush green palm fronds; towering trees; mountains flanked in verdant green. The air was clear, everything was quiet, and there were no signs of civilization. This was already the most unfettered outdoor experience of mine in Southeast Asia. Just us, the porters, a muddy trail, and nature enveloping us.

After two hours of transitioning between dry, exposed ridges and the extremely dense, wet forest, we reached the first camp on the mountain, at 2,200 meters (7,200 feet). This was the first sign of human activity, although  the base consisted of nothing more than a triangular wood-and-tarp tent for sleeping and a tarp-covered kitchen. By this point us four Westerners were drenched in sweat but Bao and Su, who were wearing a pair of Converse hi-tops and flip-flops, respectively, looked like they weren't even trying. We enjoyed a hearty lunch of chicken, noodles and rice, while watching a cat and a dog play fight with each other.
After relaxing for two hours, we hit the trail again. I now had a seriously sore right knee thanks to a clumsy fall I took in camp, but there was no time to slow down. After scrambling over wet rocks and slippery branches for a bit, we emerged onto a lengthy open ridge, which proved mercifully dry, and also gave us our first fleeting views of the Fansipan massif. We had a long ways to go, but we were now making tangible progress. Now, instead of mud, we had to worry about piles of crap the size of my head in the middle of the trail. We guessed the turds were from water buffalo, although we hadn't seen any yet.

After passing a family of goats, we began an extended ascent up an absurdly muddy, rocky stretch of trail that, thankfully, had a railing installed along it, an unexpected safety feature in a country that hasn't yet heard of personal safety. Most of this segment was flanked by tall bamboo, hiding most of the views, but there were a few open points that were obviously designed to show off the scenery. However, the mist had returned, and visibility was probably less than 30 feet. The weather this first day changed dramatically with astonishing rapidity; sunny and mostly clear one minute, foggy and gloomy the next.
Once the ridge ended we plunged back into the forest; wetter and more tractionless than ever. The gradient, both up and down, became ever steeper. There was some humor at one point, when we ran into a Vietnamese couple, the guy dressed in a polo shirt with an ascot design on the front; the girl in pearl earrings and a nice sweater. Some people just don't know when to dress down.

The hour or so before we reached the next campsite was the most difficult of the trip so far. We had to traverse a boulder sloped at a 45-degree angle; mangled tree roots covered in moss; and piles of unsteady stones; all before being dumped out onto a flat stretch of pure mud running between tall bamboo. The mist was still omnipresent, although we were afforded fleeting glimpses of clouds at eye level - much like the view you get out of a plane.

We reached the second camp, at 2,800 m (9,200 ft), around 4pm. Almost identical to the first rest stop, this was where we spent our first night. We did our best to wash off the mud of the day, stretched our shocked muscles, and ate dinner before it was even dark out. Once again, the skies cleared by dusk, and a nearly-full moon illuminated the jagged mountains surrounding us. We nestled into our sleeping bags laid out on the rough wood of our shelter by 7pm, hoping to get some decent sleep before our 6am wake up. We had roughly 300 meters of altitude to go. Tomorrow: the summit.


  1. Keep up the writing! I'm suppose to be sleeping but instead I read through a ton of your posts. I can't wait to visit Vietnam some day.

  2. Thank you! I'm glad this is interesting enough to keep people awake. You should visit - this is an amazing country!